Review of The Assassin's Song by M.G. Vassanji
The Assassin's Song
by M.G. Vassanji
On the back cover of my edition, there's a blurb from The Globe and Mail that calls the book "timeless." That is the most accurate single-word evaluation of The Assassin's Song.
Once you've plunged into the book and read a couple of chapters, you immediately get that sense of timelessness. M. G. Vassanji intersperses aspects of the "present day" with events in the thirteenth century and events from the narrator's childhood. The historical events take on the quality of a story or a myth, whereas the events from the narrator's childhood function much like snapshots that trigger a distant memory. Vassanji has a crisp prose style that unifies these disparate periods in time, tying them together into a very intriguing story.
Vassanji's depicts his scenes with broad brush strokes that allow me to place myself there and immerse myself in the atmospheres he invokes. India, steeped in mysticism. Boston, the nexus of those who don't belong. Canada, the refuge of fledgling cultural movements. All of the settings are a great deal more three dimensional than I do them justice here, of course, but at the same time they represent very clear and intentional periods in the main character's life.
The Assassin's Song is the type of book that you will be able to read at different times throughout life and interpret accordingly. As a fairly young individual, I often found myself aligning with Karsan against his father, who naturally stood in opposition to some of his son's rebellious actions. As with most father-son tales, the ending consists of a one-way reconciliation, Karsan with his dead father, but there is the suggestion that his father clinged to traditions slightly longer than he should have. At least, that is the decision that Karsan reaches, for he is the last of the line of the Sahebs of Pirbaag, and another ancient tradition shrouded in mysticism passes from the world of the living into the pages of history and folklore.
I suspect that when I revisit this book as an older, more experienced person, I will see additional facets of the story that escaped me on a first reading. While I doubt I'll ever completely empathize with the position of Karsan's father, I do understand his point of view. Vassanji takes the father-son conflict and successfully amplifies it into a discussion of religion and spiritualism in the context of modern society. This is one aspect of Indian culture that makes it so fascinating: India has a very strong tradition; although it is primarily Hindu, there's very deep influences of Buddhism and Islam (the latter of which, of course, led to the formation of Pakistan). For this reason, India is a perfect setting for stories that want to address how cultural values shift as a country attempts to break itself away from the cycle of history and become influential on the international stage. Vassanji gives us a glimpse of this struggle from the perspective of an individual and a family rather than the entire country, and this synecdoche is very effective.
The title provoked me throughout the book--of course in hindsight it's dreadfully obvious, and a more astute reader would probably catch on to its obvious meaning. Until the end of the book, however, I meditated frequently upon the significance of the title. It's not the most interesting part of the book though.
The end of the story takes on a strange epistolary dimension that I didn't enjoy. It works, but at the same time it robs the story of some of the timeless quality that it had before. I kept on having this "voiceover" feeling as I read the letters written by Karsan's father--perhaps, however, that is an artifact of the movies and a testament to my own cultural upbringing than a statement about Vassanji's narrative style.
In any event, The Assassin's Song is a solid character-driven work replete with emotional depth and a moving story. At times it can feel somewhat dense, especially for those unfamiliar with Indian history or the basic tenets of Hinduism, Islam, etc. However, the book takes you on an elegant journey that left me refreshed and made me think. I like that.